Page 44 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

Blake and Catherine stepped out of sight. I felt for them both. Max shouldn’t have come, but now that he was here, worry knotted in my gut. He couldn’t be pleased with Blake removing him from the board, and I could only hope that an argument didn’t erupt and ruin the night.

Michael’s expression was thoughtful. “Perhaps you could be the one to make them see the absurdity of it all, Erica. They know you, respect you. Men can be awfully short-sighted sometimes. Reactionary. I’m sure you know this from experience. Maybe all they need is some guidance from an intelligent, compelling woman to make them see what a waste of time all this is.”

I felt myself flush. The man barely knew me. Besides, what power did I have over either of them? Max had gone to such great lengths to upset my company’s success. I was the last person who could bring them peace. I’d become a third party, inextricably involved in the whole terrible mess.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I think stepping between them would be dangerous.”

He nodded. “Perhaps. Max is my son, and Blake is very much like a son to me. Neither of them listen worth a damn to anything I say, sadly. You’ve certainly captured Blake’s attention though. Now if only Max would do the same, maybe we’d have some progress. It’s hard to care about much else when you have a beautiful woman in your arms.”

He smiled, and I warmed despite myself. I wanted to say more and try to enlighten this idealistic albeit sweet man with the truth. But it would do no good. Michael, Max, and Blake were like gods at war with one another, having no perspective on the potential impact of all those involved. Except Max knew exactly what his impact would be on me. The health of my business might have been a passing interest at a time, but it had considerably more importance as soon as Max realized he could hurt Blake through it.

Still, I hadn’t spoken to either Risa or Max since their site went up. As much as I wanted to tell them exactly what I thought of them, I’d chosen to stay silent.

“You look like you could use a drink.”

I spun to find Max extending a glass of champagne to me. I hesitated, but sensing Michael’s eyes on me, I took it, if only in the momentary spirit of peace. I masked the disgust for the younger man, painting on a tight-lipped smile.

Max nodded to his father. “Dad, Greg was asking about you.”

“Was he? I’ll go find him then.” Michael scanned the room and then turned back to me. “Erica, it was lovely to meet you finally. We’ll chat again before I go, but if not, perhaps you can convince Blake to come to Dallas for a proper visit. It’s been too long.”

“Of course. I’ll see what I can do.”

He kissed me on the cheek and winked before leaving me with Max. Being alone with him made me instantly uncomfortable. This was supposed to be a happy day, but I had nothing nice to say to Max. No matter Michael’s optimistic thoughts about everyone getting along, Max had wounded me and attacked my business in a way that was unforgiveable.

“Why are you here?”

He scoffed, feigning offense. “You’d think you might be happier to see me. I was a few signatures away from giving you two million dollars. Or did Blake’s four mil trump that whole thing?”

“No, but your propensity to shit on everything he does certainly colored that choice.”

“Was it a choice? Or did he back you into a corner? That’s how he works, you know. He manipulates and positions himself to the point where you can’t make any other decision but the one he wants. Is that the kind of man you want to marry?”

“What do you want Max? Or did you just come here to upset everyone?”

“I was hoping I could speak with you, actually.”

I shrugged, taking a sip of the champagne. “Here I am.”

“I’d like to discuss business, and I’d rather not do it in front of parents and childhood friends. Could we speak alone?”

He eyed me steadily. Looking around the room, I couldn’t see Blake, but the thought that he would intervene if he saw us speaking seemed likely.

“Blake doesn’t want you here. You should really leave. His parents put a lot into this party, and I’d rather not see it ruined because you two can’t get along.”

“Agreed. I’ll be on my way as soon as I can have a moment of your time.”

I sighed, my aggravation growing the longer I stayed in this holding pattern with him. As much as I wasn’t in the mood for any kind of powwow with Max, I also didn’t want Blake to cause a scene. I’d let Max say what he needed to say and hopefully get him to leave so the rest of the night could carry on as planned.

“Fine. Five minutes, and then you need to leave.”

“Fair enough.”

Reluctantly, I led him from where we stood down a hallway that led to Greg’s den. The room was cool and quiet.

I walked in and turned at Greg’s large desk, leaning against it.

The door closed behind Max with a click.

“That’s better isn’t it?” He walked closer, something hidden in his guarded expression.

“Say what you have to say.”

He stopped a few feet away, a distance I assured myself was safe. My stomach tensed. An uncomfortable sensation prickled under my skin.

Lifting his glass, he smirked. “How about a toast?”

I rolled my eyes. “What would we possibly toast to, Max?”

“To Blake.”

I canted my head, waiting for him to continue.

“For winning the girl, driving me out of Angelcom, and managing to turn my old man’s eye from his own family for the better part of fifteen years. How’s that for a toast?”

Resentment laced every word. But when I considered what he’d done to both of us, I couldn’t muster an ounce of sympathy for him. I was glad he was losing his battle with Blake, and I could certainly toast to that.

“Cheers.” I lifted my glass to him and let the champagne slide down, the liquid welcome to my mouth now parched from the hours of introductions and conversations.

A smile lifted his lips. “So tell me, how’s business?”

I laughed. “Wouldn’t you like to know? You lost your inside connection. I suppose you’ll have to guess and hope for the best now.”

“You sound bitter, Erica. Why? I told you I was interested in the concept. You chose not to let me invest in it. Shouldn’t it show my commitment that I was willing to make it happen with or without you?”

“It speaks volumes to your commitment to chase after Blake’s ventures trying to carve out something that could rival anything he’s created. You had access to privileged information about my company and used it against me. Below the belt, I’d say.”